The costly hope that he'll hit it big

Every afternoon, when a retired man we'll call George takes in the mail, he divides it into three piles: letters, bills, and miscellaneous. Many people would consider the third stack junk mail, but George sees it differently. It includes sweepstakes entries, which he fervently hopes will someday yield a pot of gold.

He studies the envelopes. Some bear tantalizing return addresses, such as: "Sweepstakes Clearinghouse Prize Notification Dept." Others are stamped "Confidential," "Official Business," "Urgent Correspondence," and "Important Notification." George looks at them all, then carefully slits the envelopes.

Inside, the come-hither tactics continue, with everything from fake checks, or "credit vouchers," to "certificates of award" and "financial-freedom documents." Letters hint at possible winnings: "This is to notify you of a huge $25,000 prize our office is holding. This tremendous $25,000 award could belong to you." One letter closes with "To your prosperous future."

Although some mailings state, "Purchase not necessary and doesn't increase winning odds," George, like many hopefuls, believes a purchase - a book, a magazine - helps his chances. He wouldn't dream of buying a lottery ticket. But he does believe the odds of winning a sweepstakes are in his favor. With quiet determination he says, "Someday I'm going to hit it big."

"No, you aren't," relatives and friends could reply. But how can they convince him, or any entrant, to believe them, since envelopes clog the mailbox daily, appearing to promise riches? With no pension and only Social Security and modest savings to live on, George longs for financial security. No more clipping coupons to save a quarter on mayonnaise. No more worrying about outliving his money and ending up on Medicaid.

As contestants go, he's a small-time player. Even so, he doesn't want his name used here. To keep his family from knowing he sometimes sends money, he pays by money order and hides the receipts. That leaves no telltale record in the checkbook. It also means he's not sure what he spends a year - $300? $500? "I don't know," he says, mildly embarrassed. Even $500 would help to cover a month's rent.

Women are more likely to respond to sweepstakes than men, experts say. But male or female, many contestants are too humiliated to tell their families when they lose money. Sweepstakes companies can no longer print fraudulent "You are a winner!" claims on envelopes. That doesn't stop them from other appeals.

One green postcard from a sweepstakes monitoring service tells recipients that for a "one-time $7 service fee," the company will "keep watching for more ways [you] can win sweepstakes cash." A white postcard from an assets-recovery company tantalizes recipients by claiming that "potentially $50 to $3,500" of unclaimed state funds "belongs to you." For $14.98, they'll send "unclaimed money collection documentation."

Older people living on fixed incomes aren't the only ones attracted by these come-ons. But they remain more vulnerable than people who still work. George, an octogenarian, retired two decades ago. Add pitches by telemarketers and door-to-door salespeople targeting older residents - offering roofs, siding, driveways - and the potential for losing money escalates.

As late-afternoon sun fades in George's modest living room, he stacks the sweepstakes envelopes. He's never won anything in a decade of trying, but who knows? Tomorrow is another day, with more enticing offers. Even if he never "hits it big," he reasons, he might someday at least hit it small. Twenty years after his last paycheck, that, he is convinced, is better than nothing.

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